© Douglas Friedman

Wolfgang Puck: Chef to the stars

More than 50 years ago, a small-town boy from Sankt Veit an der Glan in Austria set out to conquer the culinary world. Today, Wolfgang Puck reigns over a restaurant empire with 5,000 employees, with his name adorning everything from frozen pizzas and canned soup to cookware and Formula 1 racing cars.

September 8, 2023


The "Spago" in Beverly Hills, boasts a show kitchen, where you can keep a close eye on Wolfgang Puck. © Maggie Shannon

Breakfast at Palais Coburg in Vienna. Wolfgang Puck orders black coffee, nothing else. His sister Christine has come to the capital to see him. They don’t spend a lot of time chatting about the old days: “I don’t look back much,” he says. His Austrian dialect is tinged with American. “For me, it’s today and the future that count!”


On Oscar night, Wolfgang Puck commands a kitchen crew of more than 150 people. © provided

Wolfgang Puck is spending a few days “on tour” in Austria, checking up on his restaurant at Vienna Airport together with his younger brother Klaus, giving lectures, being honored for his life’s work, visiting his son Byron, who’s currently interning at the "Steirereck", meeting up with his old pal Mike Köberl, who he’s cooked through the night with for many an Oscar ceremony, and trying out the country’s best vineyards and restaurants with Mike; all that in just four days, always wide awake and alert. “If somebody works 12 hours a day, that’s only half of a 24-hour day,” he says – and that’s how he lives as well.

Pizza with smoked salmon and caviar is Puck's best-known dish. © provided

Puck pulls his phone out: “Look, this is what we’re building; Frank Gehry, my wife Gelila and me.” The photo shows the model of a two-story ship’s hull, Puck’s latest project: an elongated restaurant on the narrow strip of shoreline between the Pacific Coast Highway and the ocean in Malibu, boldly designed by the now 94-year-old world-famous architect Frank Gehry. It’s quite something to look at, even as a model, and is due for completion in late 2025; a limit of $100 million has been set for the building costs. “We’ve got a 50-year lease with the option of extending for 25 years – I’m only just starting out on my career, you know,” laughs Puck.


Dinner at Puck’s – guests can taste the experience at Cut in London (pictured) as well as in L.A., Tokyo, Singapore, Budapest, and now even Riyadh. © Niall Clutton

The path that young Wolfgang set out on all those years ago was full of peaks: His mother was a cook, and he has fond memories to this day of her simple but delicious soup made from fresh vegetables and herbs from the garden; that’s why the ingredients in his restaurants have been “pure organic” for nearly 40 years now – long before the slow food wave took off. “My stepfather always used to say: ‘You’re no good for anything!’” says Puck, remembering the less pleasant sides of his childhood. He left home in his early teens, cooked at Maxim’s in Paris and Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo. It was there that he fell in love with Formula 1 racing: “Once, Niki Lauda and I were dancing with two women. They asked me if I was a racing driver too. ‘No,’ I said, ‘I’m a chef.’ And they left me standing there!” he recounts. Today, he can laugh about it: The celebrity chef recently announced a partnership with the Aston Martin Formula 1 team, where he’s in charge of catering. In return, Fernando Alonso now races round the track with Puck’s name on his car.


 Wolfgang Puck and Julia Roberts. © ABImages, 2014

Then his career took him to Indianapolis and from there to Los Angeles, to Ma Maison – where the beautiful, rich and famous gathered in the 1970s. Love Story star Ali MacGraw came into the kitchen to take a closer look: “I was so nervous I couldn’t get a word out!” says Puck. He was one of the first to celebrate what’s become known as California Cuisine – fresh, seasonal ingredients combined to create dishes that show culinary influences from around the world. The gourmet critics went crazy, every table was booked out for months in advance. “So what did we do? We unlisted the telephone number! Anybody that really wanted to eat at our place found us somehow,” grins Puck – almost like the eponymous character from Shakespeare’s play.

The "Spago" in Budapest. © George Fakaros

He opened his first own restaurant in the early 1980s: Spago on Sunset Drive. The name comes from a musical that producer and composer Giorgio Moroder was planning to write at the time – the maestro held a stake in the enterprise. The restaurant was particularly popular with Old Hollywood – Billy Wilder, Gene Kelly and Sidney Poitier (who was godfather to two of Puck’s sons) were all regulars. One evening, Joan Collins came in for a bite to eat. It was late: “We were out of everything, so I went into the kitchen, found some pastry dough, a bit of caviar, some cream, chives and smoked salmon, and whipped her up a quick pizza – crispy on the bottom, cold on the top,” Puck recalls. One of his most famous dishes was born. For a long time, it never showed up on the menu or on bills – he served it for free, as a little snack in between.


Spicy tuna tartare in sesame miso cones: one of Puck's many signature dishes. © jamesbedford.com

If it was Auguste Escoffier who brought the kitchen out of the basement and into the main house, and Paul Bocuse who took chefs out of the kitchen and put them on the stage, then 50 years ago it was Wolfgang Puck who took the next step and brought the guests into the kitchen. The show kitchen principle was born: an open fire in the middle of the restaurant, so diners could watch their food being prepared just like on TV – except that it was actually served to them. With slight tweaks, that concept still works in more than 100 Puck restaurants all over the world. That means he has to travel a lot: “I’m OK with economy class on a short flight, and business is fine for a long one. I always book too late for first class – I like to be flexible.” Puck takes a similar attitude to his favorite foods: “Whatever I happen to have, good ingredients, simply prepared – and there’s always some chocolate in the freezer!”


Next Generation: Byron Puck is currently working at the "Steirereck" in Vienna. © Mauritius Images

On the way to the car somebody asks him for an autograph. Puck makes time for that too: “Always spend more time in the bedroom than in the kitchen!” he writes before signing his name. And then a selfie. Doesn’t that get on his nerves after all this time? “Any celebrity who says they don’t want to be recognized ought to stay home!” he says – and then he’s gone. 

This article appeared in the Falstaff TRAVEL issue Summer 2023.

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